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This is unfortunate for the big cats which are listed as “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) red list of threatened species with their populations dwindled by a loss of habitat and poaching. Despite this, nearly 1,000 leopard skins are either worn or sold at every major Shembe gathering.
But there is hope. In order to reduce the hunting of leopards and demand for their skins, Panthera, a leading organisation in big cat conservation, has worked to develop authentic-looking fake leopard skins and convinced the Shembe to use them. Also interesting is that these high-quality, affordable and realistic fake leopard skin were all produced in China.
Whilst this is clearly a mutually beneficial relationship, there are a few surprising places and ways in which China and Chinese people have cropped up in demonstrations of commitment to conservation efforts.
It is the efforts of these individuals that remind those all too eager to plaster generalised statements of “animal killers” against the Chinese that the war against wildlife crime is also happening from within.
In 2011 Zhuo Qiang, known locally as Simba, left his well paid job in China and moved to Kenya where he was determined to fulfil his passion of living close to African Lions and help in their conservation.
He established the Mara Conservation Fund with the aim of conserving the big cats and protecting their natural habitats while providing a platform for other Chinese nationals to get involved. Every year 100 Chinese volunteers came to Kenya to work with Zhuo on conservation projects, sharing their experiences with others when they go home.
Based in Ol Kinyei Conservancy, Maasai Mara, the Fund was the first wildlife conservation organisation run by a Chinese in Africa, but Zhuo Qiang is not alone in his grassroot efforts.
Another Chinese conservationist, Gao Yufang, realised that there was a gap between Chinese and Western understandings of the ivory trade and so dedicated his work to understanding the role of the Chinese in the ivory trade, with the aim of creating obstacles that would help put a stop to the slaughter of African elephants.
Gao, a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, spent over two years conducting research in Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya. He even put himself in precarious positions – in Tanzania for example, he pretended he was an ivory buyer and collected information by interacting with illegal dealers in the black markets. He even visited legal and illegal ivory facilities in China where he interacted with sellers and buyers to get first hand information about the market.
Meanwhile in Kenya, a group of Chinese citizens are also determined to make their mark in fighting wildlife crime.
Late in June, they carried out their second de-snaring exercise where they removed snares that have been set, rescued trapped animals and reported injured animals.
The project, organised by China House (the first NGO in Africa dedicated to Chinese corporate social responsibility and social integration), Humane Society International and the Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), raises awareness on wildlife poaching and seeks to reduce the involvement of Chinese nationals in the illegal wildlife trade in Africa.
While these grassroots efforts play an important role in tackling immediate problems on the ground, the actions by some “big” Chinese players have left big marks on the wildlife protection scene. Most notably are the efforts of Chinese celebrities Yao Ming and Li Bingbing who both made trips to Kenya in their conservation efforts.
Chinese actress and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador, Li Bingbing, joined a campaign to raise awareness on elephant protection. She went on to urge her countrymen and women to go ivory free through billboards and signs erected at 107 locations in the Shanghai and Beijing airports.
She also featured in a public service announcement which shows Li and her “children” running for their lives from poachers across the African savanna:
The clip urges viewers to consider the realities of elephant poaching and was shown on 1,300 screens in 150 theatres across China. A version of the ad also aired on television and on screens in airports, train stations and street-level electronic billboards.
Former NBA star Yao Ming also used his celebrity status when he visited Kenya to come face-to-face with elephants and rhinos, documenting the poaching crisis these creatures are facing as a result of growing demand for rhino horn and ivory products. He even featured in a documentary aimed at combating poaching.